Cyberwar in Korea – Kim Jong-eun’s Key to the Throne?

South Korea’s Defense Minister accused the North today of attempting to jam military communications in the South during joint U.S. – South Korean military exercises, with the GPS-disrupting signals used in the attack being traced back to military bases in North Korea’s Kaesong and Mt. Geumgang/Kumgang. Along with that attack, a South Korean defector organization, citing sources inside the North, is blaming the North for a 3 March cyberattack on government and business websites in the South.

An earlier posting examined the GPS jamming attack on the South, but today’s defector report suddenly makes the cyberattack on the South Korean websites last week look a little more interesting. According to the report, the North was not only responsible for the attack (plus an earlier one on 7 July 2009), it was Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong-il’s son and current heir to the throne, who was in charge of the attacks. While a single-source report from a website working toward regime change in the North is hardly definitive, it raises an interesting parallel for examining leadership succession in Pyongyang.

According to the report, Kim Jong-eun was made the head of a special cyber-warfare military unit founded in September 2007. This unit was reportedly responsible for the attempted GPS-jamming, plus the website attacks in July 2009 and last week. The previous success of the unit, “formed at little cost but producing large effects,” reportedly helped Kim Jong-eun become Kim Jong-il’s designated successor last September (perhaps the other son should have spent less time gambling in Macau or trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland).

The parallel here is how Kim Jong-il took over from his father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. Originally shunted off to making movies in the country’s culture and propaganda department while his uncle was scheduled to take power, the younger Kim out-maneuvered his uncle by using his position to harness new technology and related methods to impress his father (in late 1960s North Korea, movie-making and other mass media campaigns were still quite new). By 1973, Kim Jong-il had been moved up and placed next in line to the throne [click here for a brief summary of these events from Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean ever to defect].

Now, 40 years later, Kim Jong-eun seems to have used the Internet and cyberwar – new technology and related methods – to outfox his uncle (Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek) and move to the front of the leadership succession. Given his own personal history, this must have seemed a familiar, reassuring path to Kim Jong-il. While history rarely moves in such clear parallels, the similarities do help explain Kim Jong-eun’s sudden appearance as the heir-designate, despite his young age, two older brothers, and the power of his uncle.

Could all of this be wrong? Of course. I heartily look forward to the collapse of the regime, the opening of Pyongyang’s records, and the definitive story finally emerging. Until that happy day though, that’s my 2 cents on the succession.


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